Ironically, many reviewers and his publishers have likened the book to Alex Garland's The Beach, even though he wrote The Gringo Trail before Garland's novel appeared. The comparisons are simplistic though, according to Mann: “Although it’s set in Thailand, The Beach isn’t really a travel book. Garland clearly isn’t interested in Thailand per se – there is really very little about Thailand in the book. The only Thai character, as far as I can remember, is a homicidal drug-producer, which is an aspect I didn’t like about the book. I don’t think Garland is especially interested in backpacking either. He just uses it as a setting for what is essentially an re-write of Lord of the Flies”.
If The Gringo Trail isn't as widely known as Garland's The Beach, it's not because of the quality of the writing. It could be far more to do with the fact that Latin America, in the Anglo-Saxon world, is off the map. Travelling through South America you have to be struck by the relative lack of English speaking backpackers. Why does Mann reckon this is? “I think it’s mainly because SE Asia is on 'Round the World' routes, which Latin America isn’t, and SE Asia has better beaches and is generally warmer and cheaper. And also the fact you can’t get by in English puts many people off South America.”
Drugs though are one element that do link both books together. Cocaine and Marijuana permeate the book, perhaps perpetuating a stereotype of South America? “If anything I felt the drug-taking in the book is more perpetuating the image/stereotype of backpackers, but really it was just a reflection of us, or particularly the other Mark [his friend and travelling companion]. I just wanted to write the story without thinking too much about it, and let whatever was there come through. If readers are attracted to the book because of the drug aspects, I’d hope at least they’ll come away from it feeling there’s a lot more interesting things about South America than just drugs.” He continues, slightly self-defensively, it seems, ”I’ve tried to be non-judgemental about drugs in the books, and I’ve found in many cases people project their own pre-existing prejudices about drug use onto it”.
Having captured the essence of backpacking so perfectly, what, in Mann's opinion, is at the root of the desire to travel? “Well, obviously, different people travel for different reasons. Travel has become so cheap and easy and there’s almost an expectation that you should ‘go travelling’, so a lot of people seem to just do it because their mates are and it’s the thing to do. Travel now is just another aspect of consumer society – to consume a few exotic destinations and come home with a few so-called adventures to talk about before starting a ‘serious job’. Sadly, I think another reason is because we’ve messed up our own environments so much we have to travel to find somewhere that hasn’t been degraded to the same extent. Personally, I’ve lived most of my life in a polluted, overcrowded city (London) and I want to get away from that to places of natural beauty – mountains, deserts, rainforests, etc.”
While The Gringo Trail was in many ways a 'devil may care' novel for the backpacking generation, Mann has also written a more sober guidebook, reflecting the more socially minded concerns for the modern traveller. His The Good Alternative Travel Guide, written for Tourism Concern, is a guide to ‘community-based’ tourism. He explains that ” 'community-based tourism involves tour projects – ecolodges or rainforest treks, for instance – in the developing world run by or with poor communities. The idea is to try to give excluded communities a slice of income from tourism, among other benefits. Basically it’s ‘fair-trade’ tourism. It also offers travellers fantastic opportunities to get beyond the sort of lack of engagement with the local community that I describe in The Gringo Trail – and really connect with local communities and places”.
And, presuming unlimited funds, where would the traveller Mark Mann choose to go next? “I’d love to do some extended trekking – a month or two in some mountains away from any form of motorised transport. I met a Frenchman while trekking in Peru who claimed the G20 trail across Corsica was the finest long-distance hike in the world, so I’d like to do that, and I’d also like to do the coast-to-coast traverse of the Pyrenees”. But, like anyone who's been bitten by the travel bug, to answer the 'next trip' question with one response is impossible: “There’s also a huge area containing awesome mountain scenery in Szechwan and Yunnan in China that’s geographically and culturally 'eastern Tibet'. The hiking potential looks amazing but it’s totally undeveloped and remote. I was there about three years ago but the Chinese don’t understand the concept of hiking as a touristic activity so it was too hard to organise anything in the limited time we had available. But if I had to pick just one place, I’d like to go back and spend a few months travelling around the Colorado Plateau’s red rock and canyon country in northern Arizona and southern Utah – the Grand Canyon, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Monument Valley, Sedona, etc etc. Just awesome scenery. Again, I was there a few years ago but didn’t have time to get out and hike and camp, which is the only way to fully take in such monumental landscapes.”
Describing the factors that make up a good novel, he says ”Characters coming through crises is traditionally the core of all storytelling. You have to believe in the characters and be gripped by their dilemmas.” Though he tends to read more “speculative history” than novels these days. Whilst not disclosing any future writing projects, I'm sure I'm not alone in hoping that he puts pen to paper again, sooner rather than later, and perhaps this time for a 'proper' novel?